By Claire Theriot Mestepey
In high school I worked at my mom’s resale shop. With great ease, I slipped into a part-time job at the admissions office the second week of my freshmen year of college. After graduating with a BA in communications, I immediately started an internship with a disability television network, which quickly turned into a full-time job with promises of great career advancement. And I thought that at 26, my career path was smoothly paved with accessible sidewalks.
Just a year later, the network went bankrupt and I was thrust into the real world. It has been extremely harsh. For the first year of being laid off from the network, I honestly thought it was an opportunity to find a better job that would lead to even greater opportunities.
“I think part of the problem is people, in general, probably make assumptions on first impressions.”
That was 14 years ago. Since then, I’m afraid my career has stalled out. I have done a great amount of contract work and freelance writing, but who knew I’d peaked at 26. I’m a firm advocate for taking responsibility for one’s actions, not blaming others, or pointing the finger. But despite, or because of my ease of past accomplishments, I try not to factor in my cerebral palsy as an obstacle for finding a good job. But as the years of rejection go on, sometimes you have to wonder.
I think part of the problem is people, in general, probably make assumptions on first impressions. And because I’m in a wheelchair with crazy arm spasms and imperfect speech, I appear to be unqualified for any job, even though my resume showcases my diverse expertise and my references sing my praises.
Forever the optimist, I still think that things can change for people with disabilities. We would love the opportunity to work in big corporations in tiny cubes just like everybody else. I don’t necessarily think that people with disabilities can be hired in the traditional sense, but I do believe that with a few minor compromises from both sides, corporations can find a limitless number of qualified employees in the disability community.
In my opinion, corporations may overlook hiring people with disabilities out of fear, haste, or embarrassment. First, fear, because they may think we require a ridiculous amount of modification to the workplace, like ramps, different furniture, etc. Secondly, haste, based on first impressions, without getting passed the visible disability and being opened to what the potential employee can bring to the job. And thirdly, embarrassment. There’s so much pressure to be politically correct I think some employers shy so far away from making a mistake that they miss wonderful opportunities.
I’d love to blame the big bad corporations for overlooking the tiny wheelchair-users, but I do believe there has to be a little give and take. I’d love to see an employment agency that specifically offers internships for people with disabilities. Nay-sayers may think this is unfair; we should be hired like anyone else. But the reality is that we are not like everyone else and if it gets our foot in the door, I personally would take the opportunity to prove myself.
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Claire Theriot Mestepey is a writer, teacher of disability etiquette, and motivational speaker.